SARDINIA // Another day, another set of parched dusty Mediterranean tracks for the willing drivers of this unrelenting World Rally Championship to get their tyres into. The Rally of Italy, in the sixth year in searing Sardinia, is visiting familiar terrain near the small, industrial town of Olbia. The figures jostling for the prominent positions on a second day that encompassed punctured tyres and deflated dreams are similarly recognisable.
Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala, who has been representing the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team with some aplomb, led the rest of the field a merry dance for much of the day, but predictably saw his lead eroded by teammate Mikko Hirvonen. In toasty temperatures of over 30degC that infiltrated the hills and forests, the sun shone brightly on Latvala. He overcame the obvious disadvantages of going out first to maintain first place.
He holds a lead of 9.9 seconds over Hirvonen ahead of today's final five stages. Latvala was content. "It's been a good day. We had a really tough battle at certain points out there. It won't be easy on the final day. I think Mikko will really push me tomorrow," he said. Latvala began the day 39.8 seconds clear of Hirvonen with the defending world champion and championship leader Sebastien Loeb starting out a further three seconds back in his Citroen.
Loeb has won all five rallies this season as he pursues a sixth world championship, but the Frenchman was not enjoying dominance on a day of personal setbacks in his car. Many expected Latvala's lead to dwindle as the second day unravelled with the Finn clearing the gravelly trails for Hirvonen and Loeb to pursue a clearer journey in his slipstream, but his pursuers found the climate demanding. Latvala managed to maintain a 27-second lead over Hirvonen at the end of stage nine.
Hirvonen had to slow down after being confronted by horses crossing the course on Friday. The Frenchman Loeb was quick to gallop into the heart of the second day's action, but time taken to fix brakes saw him inherit a ten-second penalty for arriving at the start of stage nine a minute late. His hopes continued to recede on stage 11 when he punctured a tyre and lost over a minute to slip down to fourth place overall.
Changing a tyre in such a short time was impressive, but every second counts in such a sport. Norway's Petter Solberg benefited to move into third place, 1min 12sec behind Latvala. Loeb is 2.2sec behind him in fourth. "It was very hard," said Solberg. "We had overheating again and the engine lost power." The UAE's driver, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, continued to jostle for position further down the field, nearly seven minutes behind Latvala.
He suffered some damage to his Ford but finished the day seventh overall. Qassimi has had three point finishes already this season and will be keen to improve on his best eighth-place finish. "It was a hard morning," said Qassimi. "I lost time on the final stage when I slid into a gravel bank on a downhill right bend. Perhaps I was too cautious on the opening two stages." Latvala leads by just under ten seconds after stage 12 of 17.